When I last left off exploring this commonly used bit of mmo jargon, I had decided that “the difference between a sandbox and a theme park MMO seems related to choice, the nature of those choices, and the limitations placed on those choices.” I had also implicated that it is not just any choice that distinguishes between these types of games but more the ends of those choices. In theme parks, any choice in how and where to play inevitably leads to the same end: increasing character level and acquiring new gear. On the other hand, sandbox goals could possibly all lead to progressing character power, but that a sandbox allows variability in the definition of character power, rather than defining the power of all players, regardless of play style, by their character’s level and gear.
In order to be perceived as a sandbox, MMOs must leave a lot of what defines success and power up to the player community. This leads to another misunderstanding regarding the meaning of sandbox: I’ve seen it written in many comment sections, likely by players who have not enjoyed current or past sandbox offerings, that “sandbox is just another word for no content.” While I can, and certainly will before this series is over, debate what counts as content, I believe most people making this statement refer to quests and other such content that provides story. While many games thought of as sandboxes have lacked any dev-driven story-based missions, I do not believe this lack actually is necessary to remain a sandbox. However, for the game to feel like a sandbox, this content should be at most of equal importance to player-driven content.
Of course, I’m left with the burden of explaining player-driven content in such a way that does not specify exactly what that type of content might be. I’m going to tentatively claim that player-driven content that enables players to personally define what is meant by power progression generally consists of game mechanics that allow players to permanently affect the game world for all players. This can be anything from player built towns to war over territory to obtaining and monopolizing a resource. Other players should be able to see what you have done and be affected by it.
However, and this is a big however, player actions that have an effect on others does not, does not, does not require traditional combat PvP. I simply mean that the passage of player A through the game world has the potential to change what player B will find or do when she wanders through the same areas later. The world is not static, nor is it phased — whatever I see, you see, he sees, and she sees. Coming back to the metaphor of theme park versus sandbox, in an actual theme park I am free to enjoy the rides, but if I were to attempt to change or modify them in some way, I’m sure I’d be arrested for some sort of crime. On the other hand, when we give our children sandboxes, we encourage them to change its initial state, a smooth plane of sand, into whatever catches their fancy. When the streetlights come on, we will tell the child it is time to come inside, but otherwise, there is no point in which we say to the child “You’re done. You’ve won the sandbox. You’ve created all the castles you can create.” Children outgrow sandboxes, but they do not “finish the sandbox.” There is no defined end — success is defined by the child. And such is also true of character power in a sandbox. It will be defined differently by every individual depending on what segment of the game’s mechanics most interest the player. It might be traditional combat power, but it can also be social, political, or financial.
There’s quite a bit for me to chew on here, never mind anyone reading along, so again I will stop and let it stew. Apparently, I am locking down my thoughts on the topic as I write them, so I will likely put all of these posts together in a more refined, united article with its own tab, eventually. Next time I will go back to freedom of choice and oppose it to another ill-defined bit of gaming jargon: “linearity.” That next entry will likely spend more time defining “linear” games than sandboxes.
But someday I will get to a final definition of some kind, I swear.